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Trust Isn't A Binary

(May 15, 2023 Newsletter)

We all know it’s important to trust the people with whom we work. Without trust, we micro-manage, second guess, doublecheck, withhold information, question intent, and get defensive. It’s inefficient and, frankly, unpleasant.

Over the next few weeks, this newsletter will focus on defining, establishing, sustaining, and rebuilding trust.

Let’s start by defining our terms. Charles Feltman, author of The Thin Book of Trust, offers these two definitions:

  • Trust as “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions”

  • Distrust as “What is important to me is not safe with this person in this situation (or any situation)”

The misconception: One of the most dangerous fallacies I observe among my clients is that trust is a binary: either you trust someone or you don’t.

  • In fact, trust isn’t a monolith – it consists of several unique elements. When you break trust down into subparts, it’s easier to see that you trust someone in certain ways, but not in others.

Scholars argue on how many elements there are, so I’ll share two versions that I like.

Version One: Feltman explains that trust consists of four components:

  1. Care

  2. Sincerity

  3. Reliability

  4. Competence

Let’s take a real-life example and see how it applies:

You ask a member of your team to create a flyer for an upcoming event by EOD. The team member says sure, but when you sign off at the end of the day, you still haven’t gotten a draft. The next morning, you send a reminder and at 11:30am you get a draft with several typos and the wrong image.

Which of these would be your default reaction?

  • Do they even care about this event?

  • There they go again, saying one thing but meaning something different.

  • I knew they couldn’t stick to the deadline – why didn’t they push back and suggest a more realistic timeframe?

  • Not only was it late, but look at all the typos! And that image! I should have just done it myself…

There’s a night and day difference between “I clearly can’t trust them” and “I don’t trust that they care about this project” or “I can’t trust that they’ll stick to their commitments.”

  • More granular responses allow you to be more specific when identifying the issue and addressing it directly, without challenging the entire relationship or the person’s character.

  • It makes a conversation easier because addressing someone’s reliability is more actionable than discussing their trustworthiness (which would make any of us defensive!).

Version Two: Another way to break down trust into several components is Brené Brown’s BRAVING Trust Inventory.

  • Boundaries

  • Reliability

  • Accountability

  • Vault

  • Integrity

  • Nonjudgment

  • Generosity

We could apply this model to the above example in a few ways:

  1. Reliability: did the team member overcommit by not speaking up about what else they had on their plate and pushing back on the deadline?

  2. Accountability: maybe the supervisor is more upset that when the email arrived at 11:30am, the team member didn’t acknowledge that the deadline was blown and explain what they’d do differently next time

  3. Nonjudgment: perhaps the team member didn’t feel that they could ask for what they need (in this case, more time or clearer instructions)

Many years ago, my manager and I were in a tense conversation. I don’t remember the topic, but I do remember saying “It makes me feel like you don’t trust me.” Her response? “It’s not about trust. I just need you to…”

I wish we had this shared vocabulary back then. Instead of being offended that she was dismissing my concern, I could have seen that she was trying to get more granular and actionable about the behaviors at hand. “Do you trust me? Yes/No” was an unproductive approach.

Feltman’s or Brown’s versions ground us in specific behaviors. Next week, we’ll explore how to establish trust in new relationships.


The Coaching Corner

Don’t forget about curiosity

When we make assumptions, we can miss out on the real story. If you’re unsure whether someone missed a deadline because they overcommitted or don’t have the skills to complete the assignment properly, just ask.

  • “In my head, I’m assuming XXX, but I might be totally off base. I’d love to hear your perspective.”

  • “I’m connecting the dots in my head in a certain formation, but I could be wrong. Tell me how you see it.”

  • “I’ve made up a story in my head about XXX, but it might not be accurate. What’s your take?”


Listen to “Trust: Building, Maintaining and Restoring It”, a conversation between Brené Brown and Charles Feltman on the Dare to Lead podcast.


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